Next week marks another PHIT Shubin Week, and there’s a very special group coming down from NYC with a different sort of improv than what you might expect. We chatted a bit with Mike McFarland, the creator of Self Image, about the show, it’s creation and how this once Philly native turned Brooklyn transplant feels about returning home with a new show.
If I understand it correctly, Self Image is a concept where each performer plays as themselves, reacting as themselves in given situations. What attracted you to this?
“The idea came out of a desire to do a different type of improv show. I have been in and seen lots of shows that have a gimmick or theme that is supposed to make them different but falls short. For example, you might sese a show called PirateProv, where the show is set on a Pirate ship or all the characters are Pirates but the show uaually comes down to a basic improv show. I thought that by changing the premise of who the characters are at their core it would force the show to be different and create a unique experience for the audience. In this case the audience gets a glimpse into what each cast member thinks they are like or how they act.”
I see a lot of familiar names in your group. Have you all had the opportunity to work together in the past?
“All of the people I chose for the cast are people that I have done shows with in the past or are friends with. Many of us came up through the classes at Magnet Theater together and have been on teams together. I thought it was really important to select a cast that knew each other and in some cases knew each other very well. I carefully selected each of them based on certain personality types and traits I saw in thier improv work that I felt would go well with the concept of Self Image. All of the people in the cast have truthfulness in their performance style.”
What kind of struggles have you faced playing yourselves? Is there anything about your scenework that you’ve found more challenging?
“To be honst with you after our first rehearsals we were surprised at how easy it seemed to be. The biggest challenge we face is that we tend to complicate the show. I think that is an issue that many people have with life as well. When things are going well, we tend to complicate things or make them harder. The simplicity of the show allows us to explore in depth the areas of our personalities that the audience uaually find the most enetertaining.”
Since the players are grounded in reality, do your environments tend to be more realistic as well?
“Yes they do. Our format lends itself to evnvironments that we can all belong to (i.e. rommates, co-workers). Although we have gotten into some abstract or more fanciful environments as well. In a past show we literally got into castmember Corey Grimes’ head and explored the depths of his psyche.”
How do you draw the line between being true to yourself and true to the moment? Do you find yourselves in situations where it would be easier to play a character?
“I don’t see a line between true to self and true to the moment. If you are truly in the moment as yourself that line can not exist, especially in this show. We do however find it a challenge to do support work in a scene as yourself. If two of us are in a restaurant scene we are going to most likely need a waiter/waitress. At that point a cast member as themself needs to step in and be that watier/waitress which actually creates some interesting justifications and interactions.”
I would think your format allows you to be rehearsing basically anytime you’re together. Does this bring you closer as a group?
“Yes it does. We kind of have a policy of FULL DISCLOSURE about our personal lives. Each rehearsal involves a lot of questions about each other and some down time for chatting. I like to have our director come a half and hour later to rehearsal than the cast so that we can have that time together.”
It seems like the more you get to know one another the easier it would be to anticipate your scene partners reaction to a given moment. How do you avoid the temptation to stay out of your head like that?
“I would agree that the better we get to know each other the easier it is to anticipate each others actions. I think that is key to our show, at times you find your self anticipating a move from your scene partner, and I have found that in Self Image I often surprised and shocked at a reaction. When they make a different move than I expect that makes for some great stage moments and great discoveries about each other.”
I’ve often heard the saying that to find truth in comedy is great, but to find comedy in truth is better. Do you think your show gives you the opportunity to really explore this?
“Absolutely, that is really why I created this show. A challenge that all improvisors face is finding truth in their work, this show forces us not only to find it but to share it with the audience and each other. We start each show by having the audience ask the cast a very personal question, we then answer the question as a group and sometimes a little discussion even breaks out on stage. This serves as our inspiration for the show, I feel that by using our answers and real information gathered during the opening we immediately ground the show in truth and that is always the best place to start a comedy show from.
… I would just like to say how happy I am to come back to Philadelphia to do this show, since I moved from Philly to NYC, two and half years ago, I have had the opportunity to perform there several times but this is the first time I am bringing a show that I created down. Most of the cast have been to Philly to perform in the Philadelphia Improv Festival or at one of PHIT’s showcases and they are equally excited. We want to thank PHIT for hosting us.”
Michael McFarland is a native of Doylestown, PA. He has studied drama at The Actors Center in Philadelphia, PA and is a graduate if the Magnet Theater Conservatory in New York, NY. He has studied improv with Armando Diaz, Rachel Hamilton, Billy Merritt, Ari Voukydis, Mike Myers(SNL), and Zach Woods(Stepfathers). He was the co-founder of the Philadelphia Improv Festival and created the long running(but no longer) show Improv Sunday @ Fergie’s. Michael was a member of the now defunct Hypnotoad (Phila.) and founded, cast and performed with Philadelphia’s Industrial . Michael was a resident perfromer at Magnet Theater (2006-2007)with ensembles Milk Milk McGinty and Viceroy. He is curently writing and developing Steamroom, a sketch comedy show set in a gym steamroom/locker room.
Self Image is a NY-based improv group featuring Michael McFarland, Lucia Aniello, Jamie Rivera, Eden Gauteron, Alexis Saarela, Corey Grimes, Megan Gray, Shawn Wickens & Brigid Boyle